Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Religion versus freedom of speech

When he was eighteen years old, Filipino patriot Graciano Lopez Jaena wrote a character sketch entitled Fray Botod (Big-Bellied Friar) where he caricatured the typical Spanish friar as abusive, cruel, lazy, independent, greedy and lustful. It earned him the scorn of the Church as friars tried to locate him and give him the punishment they thought he deserved. His brother Doroteo buried the manuscript under their house before it could be searched, saving Graciano from the friars’ wrath. It was Graciano’s first act of protest against the Spanish authorities that led to another until his relatives decided to ship him to Spain so he could continue his medical studies. Barely twenty years old, Graciano would join Marcelo del Pilar, Jose Rizal and others in the Philippine Propaganda movement to fight for reforms in the islands for the next sixteen years of his life.
Rizal’s Padre Damaso, the antagonist Franciscan priest in the novel, Noli Me Tangere, who was eventually exposed as Maria Clara’s father towards the end of the story, could easily be Graciano’s Fray Botod. Thus, why Carlos Celdran, on September 30, 2010, dressed in black like the country’s national martyr Rizal, chose to carry a placard bearing Padre Damaso’s name inside the Manila Cathedral to dramatize his protest against the Catholic clergy for their almost fanatical objection to the proposed Reproductive Health (RH) bill in Congress. All Celdran wanted to convey was a simple message: that the Catholic bishops stop meddling in the affairs of the state.
Dressed in black like Jose Rizal, artist Carlos Celdran holds a sign bearing Padre
Damaso's name inside the Manila Cathedral in protest against the Catholic clergy's
opposition to the proposed Reproductive Health Bill in Congress.Click link to view, "Punto por Punto: Carlos Celdran,
guilty sa kasong "offending religious feelings."
If this were the Spanish colonial times, Celdran could have long been vanished to Europe or to Toronto where he has gained a more receptive following among expatriate Pinoys for his jaunty and critical one act-travelogue, an interesting mix of humour, wit and satire about the Philippines and the pervasive influence of the Church in present-day politics. But the incident brings out Spanish colonial era déjà vu right from the start, it seems.
Under the ambiguous heading of “offending the religious feelings” in Article 133 of the Philippines’ Revised Penal Code, a Metropolitan Trial Court in Manila found Carlos Celdran guilty of performing an act “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful.” This was a little-known and rarely used law, but perhaps not during the Spanish colonial period where there was no separation of Church and State. Celdran could be sentenced to a prison term of not less than two months and 21 days and not more than one year, one month and 11 days.
Human rights sympathizers swarmed Facebook and Twitter pages with criticisms of the court’s decision. “This is a setback for free speech in the Philippines, which prides itself on being a democracy,” Human Rights Watch Asia declared as it was alarmed by the use of an “archaic” law to prosecute Celdran.
“What? Have you all reverted to being colonialism’s indios?” one blogger posted in Facebook. “Vatican colony,” wrote another.
Celdran’s case might have opened a huge trove of anti-Church sentiments, although this is not as straightforward as it may seem. The impugned article in the Penal Code may sound archaic or 16th century vintage, but it is a provision common to many penal codes. Even advanced democracies such as the U.S., England and Canada have a similar provision in their books as a reasonable limitation to free speech. What Celdran’s case certainly has surfaced to our consciousness is the growing conundrum nowadays in balancing the freedom of religion with the right to free speech.
In the present Celdran case, we are fortunate that this clash of two basic freedoms is limited to the issues of separation of Church and State and the right of women to reproductive health. In other jurisdictions or states, the simmering conflict is even much more intense, in that the underlying conflict is philosophical, and challenges our presumptions about religion and the right to free speech.
There is a current trend, both in Europe as well as in the United States, to give freedom of religion far more importance than it actually deserves. When someone puts an image of Jesus in a glass of urine, is this art? Admittedly, it is utterly tasteless. But it falls completely under freedom of speech.
Some Christians are, of course, offended. But they are not burning down art galleries, beheading artists, or killing other Christians to show their dislike. Contrast that with followers of Islam, who would go completely berserk if an artist were to place a copy of the Koran in a jar of urine. They would readily kill any number of people, including their own, to show their fury.
To Islamic militants, there is no right to free speech based on their religion’s premises. Rights are principles that specify the kinds of actions a person should be able to take. Islamists contend that if there is no right to “offend God,” then there is no right to free speech. Whether or not we have the right to “offend God” depends on the source and nature of rights. Such is the nature of the current debate ever since the Cartoon Jihad was published. Those from the religious right have come to the defence of the right to free speech while Islamic militants, founding their arguments on their religion, have maintained that there is no right to free speech.
Being God’s creatures, people of faith owe an unconditional obedience to his will. The Scriptures are replete with examples of the kind of obedience people ought to show God. Like Islam, both Judaism and Christianity prohibit speech offensive to God, and both call for those who violate this tenet to be put to death. From the Old Testament, for example:
“Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” Leviticus 24:16
“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” . . . you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.” Deuteronomy 13:6–9
Most of us would naturally brush aside such passages from the Bible, saying God didn’t really mean those parts. We should thank the Renaissance and the Enlightenment for not taking religion as seriously as did their forebears. We do not stone blasphemers to death anymore or burn them at stake. We just call for censorship or regulation – of television, radio, the press, the Internet, video games and so on, and we are making headway in our efforts to moderate human excesses.
Thus, when faced with something like the Cartoon Jihad, we are compelled to blur our statements to accommodate both religious extremes, putting down Muslim images as unacceptable, as with anti-Christian messages, or any other religious belief. What this really means is that individuals have a right to free speech but may not criticize religion.
We should be grateful to the Church in the Philippines that we are not yet even at the crossroads of an intellectual battle against religion, as it is abroad and in most countries where Islam is on the rise. Carlos Celdran simply waged a battle against the Catholic clergy for their medieval tendency to obstruct in the affairs of the state. Celdran did not question his faith despite his antics.
What exactly did Carlos Celdran perform that was “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful?” He was carrying a sign of Padre Damaso while inside the Manila Cathedral, not during the celebration of mass. Besides, the Manila Cathedral is the usual venue for his one-act travelogue that attracts tourists to his show.
At most, since the Manila Cathedral is a private property of the Catholic Church, Celdran should have been accosted and asked to leave the premises or warned that he should be charged with trespassing for disturbing the peace if he did not comply. Sentencing him to spend time in prison is a knee-jerk reaction from a judge who obviously does not understand how to balance the antagonistic relationship between freedom of religion and the right to free speech in this day and age.
Both rights to exercise one's religious belief and free speech are fundamental in  a democracy. However, these rights are not absolute but subject to certain necessary and reasonable limitations. For example, you cannot shout “fire” inside a moviehouse to spread panic. Nor practice human sacrifice or allow suicide in order to cause death to others even if your religion calls for it.
In a modern society where a free market of ideas is allowed to flourish, there are bound to be opposing views, something is bound to offend someone at anytime. But there can be no real freedom of expression if everyone has immunity from being offended. The dilemma of right of religion versus freedom of speech must be weighed against the harm such exercise brings to society. In Carlos Celdran’s case, the punishment does not the fit the offence.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Six degrees of separation


Once upon a time during the tumultuous seventies in the Philippines, a year or two before the declaration of martial law, I walked with Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, now the country’s vice-president, in one of the violent student demonstrations against the popular object of protest at the time: U.S. imperialism. Jojo Binay then was an aspiring young lawyer. Also marching with us as the huge wave of demonstrators pushed us toward the U.S. Embassy on Roxas Blvd. were Edel Garcellano, a writer and currently a professor of literature at the University of the Philippines, Leandro “Mark” Marcos, a fraternity brother who now works as a Methodist pastor in Pasadena, California, Babes Calixto, a student activist who later on was killed in a military ambush somewhere in Panay, and the young and comely Imelda Nicolas, presently the Chairperson of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) under the Office of the President with the rank of cabinet secretary.
A typical rally of workers and students in front of the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Click link to view Empire or
Humanity: What the Classroon Didn't Teach Me About the American Empire by
Howard Zinn. Narrated by Viggo Mortensen. Photo courtesy of jackstephens.
Except for my brod Mark and friend Edel, probably no one else among those with us that night would probably recall when and how the rioting started. When the sound of gunfire from the riot police finally receded, three or more students were reported killed, the exact toll I can’t remember now. Edel would write a vivid account of that night in the Weekly Graphic, telling how we ended up buried in thick mud up to our knees in a dark squatter area close to the Pamantasan ng Maynila as gunfire was ricocheting above our heads. Instinctively it was Mark who kept imploring divine intervention to save us from harm, a clear sign early on that in his heart he was destined to the shores of Southern California to minister to the faithful. Edel never gave up his flirtation with Marxist literary theory which continues to inspire his writings and essays on literary criticism. As for myself, the unbearable political conditions in the country pushed me to search for a fresh start in Toronto where I would study and practise law.
As fate would turn out, Jojo Binay was the most successful in that group; in politics, of course. As former mayor of Makati City, he carved a political career on his passion for helping the poor and ordinary folk, introducing programs that would help them in their lives. He built a university for poor children who can’t afford higher education, a hospital to care for the sick and the needy, and parks to improve City of Makati’s urbanscape. But when his term limits expired, he passed on the mayorship to his wife Elenita for one term, then back to him, as their children grew older and became eligible to run for office. His son Jejomar Jr. was elected councillor and succeeded his father as current mayor of Makati City. A daughter, Abby, was elected as Makati’s representative in Congress and has now set her sights to become a senator. As for his next political career, Jojo Binay is never shy about his ambition to succeed President Noynoy Aquino, himself a beneficiary of his parents’ political legacy and popularity.
My acquaintance with Babes Calixto was interrupted as I have said when he died in a military encounter about three years after that rally. His older sister Lirio became a close friend of our family. Imelda Nicolas was only known to me as a campus personality at that time. It was Jojo Binay who most probably brought her along to that fateful rally. Imelda is the younger sister of Loida Nicolas Lewis, a well-known Filipino-American philanthropist and civic leader. Loida was married to Reginald F. Lewis, TLC Beatrice’s first chairman and CEO. TLC Beatrice was the successor to the international operations of Beatrice Foods. When her husband died, Loida assumed the leadership of Beatrice until the company was sold. Loida Nicolas is also the co-convenor of the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (US4GG), a group that actively supports President Noynoy Aquino and more particularly, the Philippine government’s claim over the Spratly Islands and a number of land formations in the South China Sea.
Loida Nicolas happens to be a bosom friend of Mila Magno from Toronto who helps the US4GG in mobilizing Filipinos in the Metro Toronto area whenever they decide to picket the Chinese Consulate in Toronto. Both Mila and Loida went to high school at St. Agnes Academy in Legazpi City, the same school that produced Dina Bonnevie and Janelle Manahan, two popular but controversial Filipino actresses. Mila is married to Filipino lawyer Oswald Magno, a friend and also my fraternity brother from university, who is currently mixed up in a running feud with Tess Cusipag, editor of Balita, a Filipino community newspaper in Toronto, and Romy Marquez, Balita’s associate editor, regarding allegations of financial irregularity in the beauty contests ran by Rosemer Enverga during her stint with Philippine Independence Day Celebration (PIDC). Rosemer is married to Tobias “Jun” Enverga, former PIDC president and now the first Filipino senator in the Canadian Parliament after being appointed by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Senator Enverga, who has become the foil for ridicule by critics in the Toronto Filipino community press, also hails from a notable political family in the province of Quezon in the Philippines. Incidentally, the Envergas were my clients, so self-effacing and generous to kababayans in those days before they became the power couple among Filipinos here in Toronto.
Where is this story headed to?
Obviously, this only shows how we are interconnected to each other, that we are only a few steps away from the other person. As originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy, there are only six degrees of separation between us and the other person; that a chain of a friend of a friend, like our Facebook friends, can be made to link two people in a maximum of six steps. As John Guare, who attributed the value of “six” to Marconi, wrote in his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation, any two individuals are connected by at most five others.
Six Degrees of Separation. Photo courtesy of lukezhang. Click link to view, A Documentary on Networks,
Social and Otherwise.
This is probably true of social networks. The Facebook era and rise of social networks has meant today that people are more closely connected than ever before, with four degrees of separation having become the norm. Other recent studies (e.g., Stanley Milgram’s “small world study”) would also show that people could be connected by approximately three friendship links on average. The popular phrase “six degrees of separation,” however, continues to be often used as a synonym for the idea of the “small world” phenomenon.
A “degree of separation” is a measure of social distance between people. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on.
But the Filipino concept of family dynasty, based on degrees of consanguinity, easily beats out this counter-intuitive notion of “six” or “three” degrees of separation. If you calculate beginning from the source, i.e., the first family member in political office, the possibility of perpetuity is enormous. Holding elective office is not only like rotation by musical chairs among family members but it could also be handed down to generations like a bequest or inheritance, thus there is no foreseeable end to it. While perpetuity is not allowed in estate law, politics is something else because elections must continue to be held although they could be rigged in favour of the family dynasty member.
Rotating elective office among Filipino family members is presently at best limited by practice up to the third degree of consanguinity, i.e., from the person holding office to parents, children and siblings. When all these family members hold elective office at the same time, whether as members of Congress or provincial or city local officials (like the Marcos family), a political dynasty is installed and entrenched when the cycle of rotation goes on and on.
As family members rotate holding elective offices with the exclusion of others because of term limits, it creates an obnoxious anomaly that could only happen in a dictatorship or a society without free elections. For example, senators can stay in office for two six-year terms (12 years), representatives for three 3-year terms (or 9 years) and local government officials, for three 3-year terms (9 years). In 12 or 9 years, these officials have established their names, reputation and influence, and amassed a great amount of wealth to assure their next of kin to succeed them while they wait again for another chance to run for the same offices.
Why then do we have to hold free and democratic elections when everybody knows the results have already been predetermined? Wealth and power decide who wins in an election, and only family dynasties have this enormous advantage over others.
Blood is thicker than water between members of the Filipino nuclear family; relations are so strong and deep-seated that they can’t just be broken easily. Even if members of the same family would break away and run for office against another family member, it is still the same family dynasty that wins.
It’s about time to break this ugly stranglehold of the family dynasty on Philippine politics. We can’t wait for a law to implement the constitutional prohibition against political dynasties because Congress will not act as it is against this ruling class’s self-interests. The people can enact legislation by initiative or referendum according to the Constitution, but this may also take an inordinate time granting it will be allowed. What the Filipino electorate can immediately accomplish is to reject in this coming May 2013 elections all candidates who are related to these political dynasties. This will send a clear and strong message that the people have had enough, that they want to put an end to political dynasties now.
To paraphrase A.C. Grayling, it could be good news to hear that almost everyone in the islands, whose great-grandparents were born here, is almost certainly related to almost everyone else in the whole of the islands. That we could claim our humanity from a single female—an “ur-great-grandmother” in the long evolutionary history of the human species.
But Filipino family dynasties will never consider us as kindred. They are an exclusive, elite group capable only of looking after themselves and their next-of-kin’s interests. Our citizenship or membership in the body politic matters only because we elect them to be our supposed leaders or representatives. To them, we are nobodies who can only vote, who cannot win if we run for office. But with our vote this coming May, we can prove them wrong. Let us show them power still belongs to us—the people. With the power of our vote we can elect them or unseat them if we so choose.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Then and now

In an earlier blog, I made a reference to a quote attributed to Philippine Senator Miriam Santiago that majority of Filipinos are “not educated for voting.” Senator Santiago gave the example of movie stars getting elected in Congress because of the “ignorance of the Filipino electorate.” She probably spoke the truth.
With the pervasiveness of poverty in the Philippines, it’s not unimaginable that more than a majority of the Philippine population have actually attained a level of literacy that would enable every Filipino to vote without being told what to do. However, the lady senator obviously forgot that there is a historical explanation for this conundrum of the Filipino masses not educated for voting.
U.S. Governor-General William Howard Taft addressing the  First Philippine
Assembly in  1907. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
In an article, “The Philippine Muddle,” for Harper’s Magazine in 1926, William Howard Gardiner, who also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Navy and State Departments, wrote that mostly Chinese and Spanish mestizos were able to absorb the new emphasis on English, academics and American political history in the school curriculum at the time. The great masses, the common tao, who were children of peasants, virtually were left out uneducated and uninstructed in anything that would help them live their peasant lives more effectively. Among the more ambitious mestizo children, the aim was simply to get a “distinguishing diploma rather than a useful education; to be freed from future work rather than to be better equipped to work.” From this half-educated class of mestizos would rise what would locally be known as ilustrados, “whose one ambition is to be, first, political henchmen, and then affluent leaders.”
These mestizo politicos would eventually lord over the wretched millions of ordinary people who were ruthlessly exploited and forced to be absolutely subservient. Assisted by politically-appointed justices of the peace and fiscals, or magistrates and prosecuting attorneys, these mestizo politicos would hold the common folk in servile bondage, while the chief politico in each barrio would tell them how to vote. While it was the result of natural mestizo cupidity, Gardiner wrote that “it has been possible only because of the political incapacity of the tao millions and because of American neglect and ignorance of Philippine conditions. But as the power to prevent or to correct is ours, we Americans and not the natives, whether politicos or taos, are at fault.”
That early on, the great masses of Filipinos were deprived by an educational system that was geared mostly for the members of the upper social class. This pattern continued as the ilustrados became more politically and economically powerful. Election as the hallmark of democratic politics became the monopoly of the wealthy elite and their families. No wonder that Filipinos today are not educated for voting.
Quite contrary to the thinking of Conrado de Quiros, a columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, universal suffrage unhampered by the lack of education did not really amount to reforms or change in government or in society at large. Had the right to vote been limited to those who have education, de Quiros writes that “wealth and power would have remained with the landowners, the slave-owners, the gun-owners, the caciques, the compradors, the owners of fabricas and companias, with no end in sight.”
Mr. de Quiros is in denial of the great promise of democratic elections. The only change elections have brought was the circus of personalities playing musical chairs, a perpetual cycle of rotation of elective public officials among members of political dynasties. The material conditions of Philippine society never did change, the poor are still mired in poverty, and political power remains in the hands of the wealthy few.
Some members of the Philippine political elite. Click link to view "Political Dynasties in the

On the other hand, Senator Santiago is also equally and utterly wrong in belittling the lack of education that hinders the Filipino voter to choose wisely. Hers is an elitist position that echoes the contempt of the powerful over the misled masses. As a lawyer and a constitutionalist, Senator Santiago has forgotten that the Constitution she has faithfully sworn to uphold does not impose literacy, property or other limiting requirements on the exercise of suffrage. In fact, the Constitution mandates Congress to ensure that the disabled and illiterates can vote without the assistance of other persons.
Many of us Filipinos have been led to swallow hook, line and sinker that the United States was an altruistic colonizer. Gardiner’s article on the early years of American colonial administration in the Philippines is very informative, at least for two reasons: one, that the American Manifest Destiny to save the Philippines from its barbaric state was already failing at its earliest stage, and two, the American colonizers acquiesced in the creation of a native autocracy of mestizo politicos for their own particular profit, and it was America’s fault, not the natives, whether politicos or taos, in not preventing it. Instead of presiding over the evolution of a sound popular self-government, American colonial rule established the foundation for patronage politics which engendered the formation of oligarchic elites.
Gardiner’s prescription was to simply correct the political situation in the interest of the Philippine masses. First, he suggested to end the tragic farce of pseudo-popular self-government, then develop the material, first; second, the cultural; and finally, the political circumstances and capacities of the native population. The colonial administration of the Dutch East Indies made an impression on Gardiner. He had observed the orderly conduct of affairs, high state of development, and consequent contentment of the natives in the Dutch colonies which were in sharp contrast to the conditions in the Philippines, especially in view of their basic similarity and natural conditions.
But when the Jones Law, the organic law for the islands, was enacted by the U.S. Congress, a congressional system of government with separation of powers was transplanted on Philippine soil, an imitation of the American system without considering local conditions. With the establishment of the Philippine National Assembly, Filipinos were selected for their subservience to the chief politicos rather than their ability to serve. Such virtual control over every aspect of the government enabled the mestizo politicos to perpetuate their power over a politically-incompetent electorate.
What happened then is also happening now. After years of American tutelage in self-government, the Philippines is still attempting its best to acquire the material foundation and political maturity that are necessary for a real self-government to flourish. Successive Philippine governments and the Congress simply attempted to compromise the existing political conditions by adopting partially palliative measures, such as the 1987 Philippine Constitution which contains important democratic provisions like the party-list system of representation, the prohibition of political dynasties, and the people’s initiative to enact legislative reforms by referendum or plebiscite. But all these constitutional provisions remain nominal and aspirational at best without the operative and enabling legislation that would ensure the fulfilment of the purpose of the drafters of the Constitution. The reality is, the stranglehold of political power by the oligarchic elite is adequate insurance that such lofty purpose would never be achieved.
Senator Santiago may not be speaking in a time warp when she ridicules the Filipino masses for lacking the education to vote. Our political conditions in the past have not changed a bit, we have the same mestizo politicos like Senator Santiago and members of political dynasties whose glib assertiveness has entrenched them in our local autocracy. On the other hand, we also have people, especially politicians of the yellow kind, with the naiveté to continuously believe that our present leaders in government have already shattered the glass ceiling that excludes the masses from the political process.
Meet the Aquinos. The Aquino name crops up again and again in Philippine politics.
Benigno Aquino lll is the current president. His grandfather, Benigno S Aquino Sr,
was vice-president in the World War ll Japanese collaborationist government - his father
Benigno S. Aquino, Jr.  was a senator. He was assassinated in 1983 and his wife,
Corazon Aquino, became president in  1986. The current president's cousin, Bam
Aquino, is running for senator this time. Photo courtesy of AFP.
The horrible truth is time has probably stood still. From the colonial days to the present, Philippine politics continues to remain largely a preserve of the wealthy elite, with our present leaders in government being drawn from an entirely different economic class than the people they purport to represent.
Wealth above all shapes our political debate and determines its outcome, and special interests stand in the way of public policy and what is in the best interests of the people. No wonder we have voters not educated to make intelligent choices, for what is the point of it all when your voice doesn’t count.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Philippine politics: All in the family

Sometime ago, an article in The Economist posed an interesting query that is so relevant to the politics of our times: “Is politics in the blood, or in the genes?”
Every country in the world has its share of political dynasties, but political families in the Philippines are an anomaly in this age of meritocracy. Instead of a system that gives opportunities and advantages to people on the basis of their ability and achievement, the ascendancy of political families in the Philippines is purely motivated by blood relations and the instinct for self-preservation once they have secured elective offices. Elective positions in government have found their way into the family’s gene pool, as if children of elected politicians have the putative right of succession.
President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III follows the legacy of his parents,  Senator
Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino III and President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino. Photo courtesy
of rickysy. Click link to view
Noynoy Aquino's acceptance speech to run as president of the Philippines in 2010.
Of course, the undertow in the blood compact among members of these families is their privileged economic status. Most political families in the Philippines belong to the propertied class. They own vast agricultural lands and thriving businesses. They are members of the elite, the ilustrados, the rich and the educated. It was no historical accident that the Spanish colonizers favoured these families by appointing them to political positions like the gobernadorcillo or the alcalde mayor whose jobs were primarily to collect taxes and tributes from the people.
When the U.S. colonized the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, they took these ilustrados under their wings and trained them for the practical affairs of popular government. The first American civil governor of the islands, William Howard Taft, believed that the rudiments of self-government would easily be transferable to these ilustrados, the oligarchic elite, because of their social and economic status. So, it was the fault of the American colonizers that spawned the political dynasties we have now.
A new political system was imposed by the Americans but they did not change the Filipino social structure which allowed the oligarchic elite to gain and preserve its political power. During this period, family names such as Cojuangcos, Lopezes, Marcoses, Osmeñas and Aquinos became household names.
Taft’s idea of letting society’s affluent members constitute the Philippine Assembly in 1907 and Congress in the ensuing years resulted in the formation and circulation of elites that perpetuated their hold on political offices. A truly representative democracy failed to flourish, shattering the hopes that the country would now be able to draw upon all classes in Philippine society in electing public officials.
As oligarchic as the government officialdom was in its early years, today it is not that all different. Nothing has changed. With the enactment of term limits, political dynasties have become even more entrenched as family members simply rotate among themselves the opportunity to hold public office. As Brian Fegan, an American anthropologist would later describe in his book An Anarchy of Families, the Filipino family is the most enduring political unit in Philippine society. The transfer of power among family members is now considered normal and natural in order to preserve political continuity.
Take the Aquino family of Tarlac, for example. From 1928 until 20o7, there have been five senators from the Aquino family, which does not include the family’s patriarch, Servillano “Manong” Aquino who served as a delegate to the Malolos Congress. The first senator in the family, Benigno Aquino Sr., served as Speaker of the National Assembly from 1943 to 1944. Ninoy Aquino (Benigno Jr.), elected senator in 1968, was gunned down by his political enemies in 1983 upon his return from exile in the United States. His younger brother and sister, Agapito and Teresita, were elected as senators in 1986 and 1998, respectively. Noynoy Aquino (Benigno III), Ninoy’s son, was elected senator in 2007 and his term was cut short when he ran for President of the Philippines in 2010. The family has also produced two presidents, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, Ninoy’s widow and their son, Noynoy, the current Malacanang occupant.
Now, there is a new and rising bright star of the Aquino dynasty, 2013 senatorial aspirant Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV. Only 36 years old and the youngest candidate in the May 2013 elections, Bam is not shy of his affinity to the Aquino lineage of senators. His father, Paul Aquino, is Ninoy Aquino’s youngest brother who managed Cory Aquino’s snap election that catapulted her to the presidency after the Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986.
When asked about his powerful political connections, the young Bam Aquino answered without hesitation: “If people like me are willing to serve, we shouldn’t just stay on the sidelines.” He would be the sixth Aquino family member in the Senate, if elected. Bam Aquino was also alluded to have said in the past that Aquinos don’t have to become President whenever the country is in a political crisis. At this very early stage in his political career, there is already a foreboding sign of what Bam Aquino really hopes to be in the future.
Rep. Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito echoed Bam Aquino’s reply to the political dynasty reference when he said that this issue is only invoked by opposing candidates who feared they have no track record to run on. According to JV, anyone who has a distinguished public service track record can win over a member of the so-called political dynasty. Running for senator in this coming May 2013 elections, JV is not ashamed of his familial ties to his father, former senator and President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, with his father’s wife, former senator Luisa Pimentel Estrada, half-brother and currently sitting senator, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, and with his mother, Erap’s paramour, Guia Gomez, currently mayor of San Juan City.
Former President  and Senator Joseph "Erap" Estrada who is running for mayor of
Manila with his sons, Senator Jose  Jinggoy" Estrada, left, and Rep. Jose Victor "JV"
 Estrada, 2013 senatorial aspirant, right. Photo courtesy of AFP. Click link to view
" Erap crack a joke about the
 criticism that he was not a "Manilan."
“I cannot help it if the Ejercito-Estrada clan has chalked up a long list of accomplishments in government service, which makes the public appreciative of its members. I have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I'm proud to carry the name,” JV said.
Members of the family of the late and infamous President Ferdinand Marcos have also regained the clan’s former political foothold. The Marcos family shows that holding public office among family members easily trumps the term limits enacted by Congress. Political dynasties are more anomalously prevalent in the local level. Like playing musical chairs, family members of political dynasties in the provinces and towns simply rotate the opportunity to hold public office among themselves when the term of one family member expires.
Although the 1987 Philippine Constitution prohibits political dynasties, Congress has not enacted the enabling law needed to implement this constitutional prohibition. There have been pending bills in Congress that either define the scope of a family dynasty or limit the election of family members to public office within the second degree of consanguinity or affiliation. The proposals in Congress, however, only intend to cover local level elective offices and not those on the national level, which only fuels the skepticism on whether Congress would realistically pass any legislation prohibiting political dynasties because it will be contrary to their natural inclination for survival and self-preservation.
However, until an anti-political dynasty law is passed, a scenario which may not possibly see the light of day, there should be other alternatives through which the people can be included in the political process. In 1989, Congress has passed Republic Act No. 6735, “The Initiative and Referendum Act,” which empowers the people to directly propose amendments to the Constitution, and to enact laws, ordinances or resolutions, through a system of initiative and referendum. The Ang Kapatiran Party (AKP) has already petitioned the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to prescribe the form of a petition for a people’s initiative for the enactment of an Anti-Dynasty Act in accordance with the Initiative and Referendum Act. To date, however, the Comelec is either taking so long or purposely refusing to act on the AKP petition.
The system of initiative and referendum has been a popular tool in advanced democracies in enabling the people to directly enact legislation, especially on issues that are quite urgent but unpopular and controversial, or issues some may find radical in nature. Several states in the United States, for example, have passed through their respective referenda laws allowing same-sex marriage and the use of marijuana. Plebiscites are another form of alternative political method of expressing the voters’ will on matters that are vital to them and to the nation.
R.A. 6735 requires that a certain percentage of the total number of registered voters in a legislative district must sign any petition to enact and approve a law, or to initiate amendments to the Constitution. This is equivalent to a direct political empowerment of the voters instead of waiting for Congress that seems uninterested in passing an anti-political dynasty law. Except that the major stumbling block at present is the continuing failure of Comelec, supposedly an independent constitutional commission, to prescribe the necessary petition forms to proceed with the initiative.
While Comelec continues to delay or neglect to act on the people’s initiative for an anti-political dynasty law, there is one concrete and immediate political action the Filipino people can pledge to do in the coming May 2013 elections. By simply rejecting a candidate whose surname is the same as or related to an incumbent elected official, the voting public can send a message that political dynasties must end now. Beyond that, the Filipino people must persevere in their effort to enact an anti-political dynasty law by people's initiative or referendum, not to trust Congress to pass such law, and in exploring alternative political spaces for engagement and inclusion in the political process.
Since political power is also closely linked with economic power, there is no denying that political dynasties corrupt the political structure and restrict the liberating potential of the democratic process. The Filipino people can no longer allow the anomalous concentration of political power in the hands of a few notable families, and by rejecting candidates from these families in the forthcoming May elections, they would signal the beginning of the end to political dynasties.



Friday, January 4, 2013

No sense of an ending

Man Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes concluded his novel, The Sense of an Ending, with these words: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” Perhaps, we can borrow the novelist’s last words, remove them from the context of the story of a man coming to terms with the mutable past, and change their meaning with the vagaries of our present time and circumstance.
The United States’ lame-duck Congress has just given President Barack Obama a temporary string (not rope) to pull the government from falling into the much-ballyhooed fiscal cliff. But not after a tense political drama between Democrats and Republicans in both houses, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives finally caved in to the Senate’s compromise of permanently extending the tax cuts to those earning $450,000 and less, and unemployment insurance benefits for one more year. More Republican members of the house majority voted against the compromise but it was the Democrats who followed party lines that ultimately bailed out the Senate resolution from defeat.
Obama apparently has won the tactical battle, for now, against the recalcitrant Republican Congress but may have lost his leverage from winning his re-election on the far more strategic issues of the debt ceiling and reduction of government spending. These two issues will crop up again for congressional wrangling after two months and the future of the U.S. government and the American economy looks even more uncertain than when the fiscal crisis started in 2011, or even much earlier.
This type of crisis management by the Americans is not a model for other democracies to emulate. It is by far the worst example of democracy in action. A democracy is said to derive its strength and character from a diversity of many voices, but members of the U.S. Congress seem to speak with only one voice, which is the voice of the lobby groups and special interests that they represent. Lewis H. Lapham, in an article in Harper’s Magazine, described this voice as that of a “a full-time politician who spends at least 80 percent of his time raising campaign funds and construes his function as that of a freight-forwarding agent redistributing the national income into venues convenient to his owners and friends.” Obviously, Lapham was referring to special interests like Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform, the Koch brothers, the controversial casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, or the powerful lobby group, the American Heritage Foundation – all thanks to Citizens United.
The United States still remains a representative government, but only in the theatrical sense of the word, Lapham lamented. And if we wanted to observe the workings of a democracy, we better be advised according to Lapham to follow the debate in the Czech Parliament or the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies where “the newly enfranchised politicians in Eastern Europe write their own speeches and delight in the passion of words that allows them to seize and shape the course of a new history and a new world.” Sounds like American democracy of old.
What has happened to America?
The American way of governance has disintegrated into a tedious process of bipartisanship or compromise between the two major political parties. No legislation of significant measure can pass in Congress without wheeling and dealing between the Democrats and Republicans. The Affordable Health Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, was able to see the light of day only because both houses of Congress were in the hands of the Democrats at that time. But beginning from the Eisenhower administration in the early fifties, bipartisanship became the rule of the day. Eisenhower only had the first two years of his term under Republican control of Congress, just like Obama and the Democrat-held Congress. Presidents Reagan and Clinton adeptly mastered the way of bipartisanship when control of Congress was split between the two parties during their presidencies.
In his article, “Compromising Positions,” in Harper’s Magazine, Thomas Frank described the Obama presidency as one long quest for a “grand bargain” after another. Obama, he said, is every instinct conciliatory in managing disputes, “not merely a casual seeker of bipartisan consensus; he is an intellectually committed believer in it.”
There is a downside to bipartisanship and Obama has had a dose of his own medicine. When Republicans took over Congress after the midterm elections in 2011, Obama was forced to give in to the Republicans’ demand to renew the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in exchange for almost close to nothing, but for a little leeway in maneuvering the nation’s credit rating. The recent fiscal cliff resolution was not a total victory for Obama because it might have practically eroded his bargaining position when Congress tackles the debt and government spending issues two months from now.
In kneeling before the altar of bipartisanship, Obama appears to stay in the middle of the political spectrum, too far away from the promise of reform and change when he was running for president. He has reached across the aisle much too often and adopted many of the positions of the other party, to the consternation and disbelief of liberal democrats.
Frank wrote: “What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all rights should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid circumstances similar to those of 1933, but proceeded to rule like Herbert Hoover. Today the banks are as big as ever, and he has done precious little about it. The regulatory system is falling apart, and he is too ideologically demure to tell us why. Organized labor is crumbling, and he has done almost nothing to help it recover. Meanwhile, the people who told us that finance was king, that the “new economy” changed all the rules, that we didn’t really need a strong supervisory state—those people are still riding high, still making their pronouncements from the heights of the op-ed page and the executive branch.”
Why Americans put almost biblical faith in compromise or bipartisanship is befuddling, to say the least. Most Americans have been conditioned for many years to follow the political viewpoint of either a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or moderate. The reality, however, is that most of the problems confronting the government are technical or administrative, not issues that require more sophisticated judgments that reflect the political passions that have stirred the country so often in the past like civil rights, equality or women’s suffrage. The imagined fiscal cliff, for instance, is not a deeply-rooted ideological issue between competing Democrats and Republicans, but simply an administrative problem the government needs to resolve with regards to its credit limits to put the house in order. Both parties seem to peddle what Lapham called the “comforts of the authoritative lie,” that the promise of American democracy is no longer capable of inspiring citizens to bring about ground-breaking changes. Argument which has been assumed as normal and necessary for the continued existence of the American democratic process has been muted. In its place, politicians have chosen to march on the yellow brick road to consensus, as if conflict doesn’t really exist or matter anymore.
Under Obama’s presidency, the American government has avoided being partisan when democratic politics is about nothing else except being partisan. Arguments are sidestepped. According to Lapham, these arguments constitute the very stuff and marrow of democracy which nonpartisanhip or bipartisanship aims to annul.
By and large, what bipartisanship has effectively achieved is the postponement of what is inescapable, the obliteration of the American democratic experiment. Because at the heart of every compromise is the unwillingness of all parties to admit their responsibility in creating the conflict in the first place, and to accept their equal blameworthiness for the damage they have caused their constitutents. Every compromise is at best a half-hearted approach to resolve the conflict, not the fullest answer like the “grand bargain” that politicians are wistfully dreaming of.
The most recent drama in the U.S. Congress doesn’t augur well for American democracy. It’s not the fitting conclusion that everybody is hoping for. Not the sense of an ending every American would like to happen now.